From 16 to 19 December 2015, Geneva Call trained commanders from eight Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades on humanitarian norms in Geneva. These brigades number an estimated 15,000 combatants and are active in northern Syria, including in Aleppo, Hama, Idlib and Latakia.
Over three days, they participated in sessions on rules related to the conduct of hostilities, led by Geneva Call’s legal experts. These included the use of weapons, the protection of children, schools and hospitals, the prohibition of anti-personnel mines and a session dedicated to the protection of cultural heritage. The participants expressed their willingness to respect these rules and recognized the challenges that they face in complying with International Humanitarian Law (IHL), however, they also reported that many violations were being committed by the Syrian government, such as the use of human shields.
“Engaging with them on the respect of these norms is challenging, as they always point out that the Syrian regime does not respect many of these rules. But just because your enemy does not comply with a rule does not mean that you should not either, even if this causes a military disadvantage,” said Annyssa Bellal, Geneva Call’s legal adviser.
Most commanders already had some knowledge of humanitarian norms from which they could build upon. It was also an opportunity for them to better understand the numerous similarities between Sharia law and humanitarian norms. “In fact, many legal traditions were taken into account to develop IHL, including Islamic law,” explained Ms Bellal during one of the sessions.
After the training, the brigade commanders wrote a letter to Geneva Call in which they committed to abiding by the rules contained in IHL, enhancing the protection of civilians and sharing their knowledge of humanitarian norms with other FSA brigades.
They also stated that they would organize an FSA meeting in Syria in 2016 to discuss, and possibly adopt, a formal declaration on the protection of civilians, as had been proposed by Geneva Call.
Prior to this meeting, Geneva Call had given IHL training to several hundred fighters belonging to these brigades inside Syria, and it will continue to do so throughout 2016. It will also support the FSA in ensuring the implementation of these rules and commitments in the field.